President Donald Trump has, over the course of one year, gone from praising a dictator for killing drug dealers and users, to pushing to bring at least part of that practice to the United States. That idea is horrifying enough on its own, but when paired with Trump’s knee-jerk racism and his previous comments about his own genetic superiority, his proposal takes on a deeper and even more repugnant significance.
In a speech on March 19, billed as Trump’s unveiling of a plan to confront the opioid crisis, the president reiterated in his clearest language yet that he wanted at least some drug dealers put to death. Though the speech was initially about the opioid crisis, Trump seamlessly transitioned into familiar anti-immigrant rhetoric, blaming people entering the country for the exponential growth of the overdose crisis.
Trump was portraying his enemies — both domestic and foreign — as carriers of disease and addiction, a dangerous path to walk down when coupled with state-sanctioned murder. Last May, Trump spoke on the phone with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, celebrating the dictator’s “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” which has included extrajudicial killings at the hands of the police.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s nativist claims about the cause of the opioid crisis are wildly incorrect. The crisis hasn’t been driven by undocumented immigrants. What it has been fueled by — at least in part — is decades of pharmaceutical companies pumping pain pills into distributor warehouses and doctors’ offices in an eco-system that benefited private drug companies at the expense of public health. Subsequent crackdowns on prescription pills drove up prices, increased scarcity and pushed untold numbers of people from illicitly procured — but still regulated — pills to the unregulated heroin market. The rise of fentanyl in that market has been particularly deadly. Racist and classist criminalization practices have exacerbated the crisis, making people struggling with opioid misuse problems less likely to seek help.
Shortly after Trump’s speech, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo directing prosecutors to pursue capital punishment under an existing law passed during the Clinton administration. The Clinton-era law has never been used to execute drug traffickers.
Many observers have noted the cruelty and dictatorial nature of Trump’s proposal. Less recognized, though, is the way in which it fits as a predictable outgrowth of two positions he holds close: anti-Black racism, and the belief in his own genetic superiority.
Trump’s racist comments and practices are by this point well-known and legion, from discriminatory renting practices early in his career; to a decades-long crusade to have the Central Park 5 executed, including after their unambiguous exoneration; to his comments about African “shithole” countries. When he talks about the problem of violence in Black communities in Chicago, he talks about it like a neocolonial administrator might, arguing that the federal government should invade and occupy what Trump sees as a less-developed society.
How then, does Trump see himself and his family? As beneficiaries of good genetic breeding, in the most literal of terms. Going back decades, he has praised his own genetic make-up in language reminiscent of eugenics. He has credited his health and financial success to his genes, and has referred to himself at one point as a “gene believer.” His biographer, Michael D’Antonio, put it even more clearly in the PBS documentary The Choice: “They believe that there are superior people and that if you put together the genes of a superior woman and a superior man, you get a superior offspring,” said D’Antonio.
He has also praised the “good genes” of his granddaughter Arabella, crediting heredity with the young girl’s aptitude for learning Mandarin, rather than recognizing the work of her Chinese nanny. It’s hard to see Trump’s repeated insistences that Maxine Waters is a “low IQ-individual” as anything other than an extension of his other racist remarks, and they suggest that, at the very least, he believes his genes are superior to hers.
It is against these backdrops, then — Trump’s dismissal of the worth of Black lives and his belief in his genetic superiority — that we must understand his desire to expand capital punishment to drug dealers.
When Maine Gov. Paul LePage infamously said that drug dealers named “G-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” came to his state to sell drugs and impregnate white women, there can be little doubt that he was expressing a framework shared by Trump. (Trump and LePage walk in lockstep: In December, The Washington Post reported that Trump wanted the governor to challenge Independent Sen. Angus King for his seat in 2018.) In LePage’s fictional narrative, Black drug dealers are responsible for bringing addiction and overdose into the worlds of “innocent” white people. This allows for a continuation and — if LePage and Trump get their way — an amping-up of the war on drugs.
To Trump, and his attorney general Jeff Sessions, the war on drugs of the past four decades has been a positive thing. To the extent that Trump is capable of expressing believable empathy at all, it seems to be limited to those close to him who he sees as victims — most notably his older brother Freddy, whose struggles with alcoholism and early death had a major impact on Trump. The other victims Trump talks about often, though in a different context, are victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. He repeatedly references the story of Kate Steinle, whose death has become a rallying cry on the nativist right.
Trump’s personal theory of genetic superiority may fall short of explicitly endorsing eugenics, but anti-immigrant groups that have populated his administration have uncomfortable ties to the disgraced pseudo-science. A trio of formerly fringe groups — the Center for Immigration Studies, NumbersUSA, and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) — were all either founded or directly supported by John Tanton, a little-known Michigan ophthalmologist whose network in recent years became wildly influential in establishment Republican politics. Top activists from the groups have been hired by Trump to oversee his immigration policy, and NumbersUSA is leading the charge to lobby support for Tom Cotton’s nativist immigration restriction plan, called the RAISE Act.
Tanton has a history of supporting eugenics and corresponding with other supporters, as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Top officials at FAIR have denied any connection with eugenics and denounced it publicly, but the SPLC continues to categorize the organization as a hate group for its ongoing discriminatory statements and advocacy directed against non-white immigrants.
When Trump says he wants to kill “drug dealers,” it’s clear he’s invoking stereotypes about immigrants and Black gang members. To him, victims are white, and perpetrators of violence are not. We should understand his drug policy as another of his racist dog whistles — and one of the most alarming ones to date.